There is no general common law duty to provide reasoned decisions. However, a recent Outer House judgment has served as a reminder that the basic principles applicable to the giving of reasons have developed to such an extent that it is now expected in most circumstances.
The Court of Session case saw United Co-Operative Limited seek judicial review of the National Appeal Panel for the Entry to the Pharmaceutical Lists. The petitioners own and manage a pharmacy in Lockerbie, Dumfriesshire. A newcomer, Dalston Pharmacy Limited, applied to the Dumfries and Galloway Health Board for inclusion in their Pharmaceutical List in respect of a proposed new pharmacy in Lockerbie. The Board granted the application. The petitioners appealed against that decision but the appeal was refused.
The petitioners sought to challenge the decision of the Panel to refuse their appeal on the basis that the Panel had failed to give adequate reasons. On the facts of the present case, the reasons given by the Panel were regarded as being adequate in the circumstances and as a result the petition was rejected.
In the course of the Court of Session's judgment, given by Lord Glennie, the Court cited a passage from South Bucks District Council v Porter (No.2) as sufficiently outlining the basic principles of the duty to give reasons:
- The reasons given should be intelligible and they must be adequate, allowing the reader to understand why the matter was decided as it was and what conclusions were reached on the principal important issues.
- Reasons can be briefly stated; the degree of detail required depends on the nature of the issues falling for decision.
- The reasoning must not give rise to a lot of doubt as to whether the decision-maker erred in law, for example by misunderstanding some relevant policy or some other important matter or by failing to reach a rational decision on relevant grounds.
- The reasons need to deal with only the main issues in the dispute, not to every small consideration.
- Decision letters must be read in a straightforward manner, recognising that they are addressed to parties well aware of the issues involved and the arguments advanced.
More generally case law indicates that a challenge in judicial review based on a decision maker's failure to provide adequate reasons for their decision, will only succeed if the aggrieved party can satisfy the court that he has genuinely been substantially prejudiced by the failure to provide an adequately reasoned decision. Indeed the more important the nature of the individual's right or interest in question, the more likely it is that fairness will require reasons to be given (R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex p. Doody.).
So what is the importance of the duty to give adequate reasons? In some situations, if no reasons are provided to the disappointed party it becomes very difficult to launch an appeal or raise an action for judicial review on specific points. It is also important that we know whether or not the decision maker has asked himself the right questions in reaching a decision and has approached the matter in a rational way. Reasons allow us to discover if there has been an error of law. For many, the giving of reasons serves an important purpose, it ensures a greater degree of fairness in the decision making process. Being subject to a decision without any reasons being given seems contrary to natural justice.
A caveat does however exist; the interest of the complainant must be balanced against administrative efficiency and convenience. The duty to give reasons should not place too great a burden on the decision maker. However, the requirements of the duty are expanding in light of ECHR jurisprudence, as the requirement to give a reasoned decision is recognised as part of the right to fair trail under article 6(1) of the ECHR. It is likely, therefore, that the case law surrounding the duty to give reasons in the decision-making of public authorities will develop over time.